Suffice it to say, we (along with much of the nation) are positively gutted by the recent movie theater massacre in Aurora, Colorado. The senseless, utterly unprovoked killing of unsuspecting innocents, well, it doesn’t get a whole lot more tragic — or terrifying — than that.
The bit that we keep coming back to, though, the part that just shakes us to our very core, is the initial response of the gunman’s mother to an ABC news reporter’s inquiry: “You have the right person.” It’s chilling, no? Forget whether she had actual knowledge of her son’s plans (which is a separate matter and one for law enforcement to investigate), but do you think she just knew, deep down, that her son was capable of such atrocity?
It reminds us of the film “We Need To Talk About Kevin” (based on an earlier novel of the same name) which chronicles a mother’s experience dealing with the aftermath of her deeply troubled son’s criminal behavior, and a recent New York Times Magazine article we read called “Can You Call a 9-Year-Old a Psychopath?” Both deal with children whose hostile outbursts were possible (and in the case of the film, actual) portents of future dangerous behavior. In the film, Kevin acts out against his mother by soiling his clothes and refusing her attempts to engage him, all the while preening lovingly in his father’s presence; Michael (the titular 9-year-old in the New York Times article) violently crushes household objects and darkly threatens to kill his younger brother.
It’s all scary as hell, and it leaves us to wonder: how do you know when your child’s behavior goes beyond normal childhood disobedience to psychopathic? When is manipulation or a tantrum simply a normal, juvenile ploy to get a cookie, and when is it a symptom of psychological disturbance? In flashbacks to her son’s childhood, Kevin’s mother (an Oscar-nominated role for actress Tilda Swinton) seemes keenly aware of the strangeness of her son’s behavior, and yet watches it all without comment through a detached fog of guilt. If only she’d loved Kevin more, she thinks, or had actually wanted to get pregnant (his conception was accidental), perhaps then he would have been better. She absorbs the abuse following Kevin’s most hideous crime (a multi-casualty school shooting) in an almost masochistic way, dutifully accepting it as if penance for her own crimes. For their part, Michael’s real-life parents are dogged in their recognition of his behavior and their attempts to curtail it. They’ve sent their son to a series of therapists and subjected him to a hopeful battery of medicines and therapies, all with little to no success. Michael’s mother’s frank confession haunts us still: “There’s not a lot of joy and happiness in raising Michael.”
And these are the words of an extraordinarily diligent parent. What about crappy parents, or even just average parents: can they really know that their child might ultimately be dangerous, and even so, what can they do about it? Quality therapy and medications are expensive, and camps like the one Michael attended are rare. (And even the camp psychologists remain unclear as to whether such therapeutic interventions work.) Even more to the point: is it perhaps too much to ask *any* parent that they identify their child as a possible problem? It’s in the public’s best interest, sure, but narcing out your own kid sounds, well, pretty impossible.
Parenting is hard, and incidents like this most recent tragedy in Colorado are a sobering reminder that the stakes are incredibly high. Why, then, leave this monumental job of raising children to just one or two people? Perhaps what we need is infrastructure within our families, schools and communities so the buck doesn’t have to stop with parents. As much as there is some dark, cynical corner of our soul where we believe that some people will always slip through the cracks and atrocities like this most recent example will continue to happen, we consider: what if one of those unsuspecting moviegoers was our child? What if the shooter was our child? We’re not inclined to give up on any of them just yet.